It’s a word that the wider world would scoff at. Most of you probably won’t agree with that, you’ll bring up this notion that the world has been all about the transformation in the last 50 years and that we’ve done nothing but transforms the way our world looks and functions. But my notion of transformation isn’t the same as the world’s. See, usually, when the world talks about the “transformation” of a neighborhood it’s really talking about gentrification. That’s just a fancy way of saying that people with lower income get kicked out by the “beautification” efforts of the richer, usually white, folk moving into the city. That’s not the kind of transformation the Urban Mission Center longs for, not the kind that God longs for. In fact, it couldn’t be farther from the transformation that we wish to see in the Benton Park West neighborhood. This space is already seeing the beginnings of gentrification, and that’s scary. People who have lived here basically their entire lives are beginning to face the threat that they’ll join the absurd number of people who’ve been displaced. But, as we’ve seen, it’s not easy to fight off gentrification when you’re up against politicians who are more interested in giving tax breaks to big businesses than they are helping their constituents. So we are constantly faced with this challenge of how to bring about a transformation in our neighborhood that will allow it to look more like God’s kingdom.
As I think about this idea of transformation, I can’t help but think about the garden that we tend. One of the main aspects of Temple Houses and the Urban Mission Center is our community garden. A week ago we had the opportunity to host a mission team who helped us weed the garden.
When we started the garden was a mess of weeds and plants attempting to grow amidst them. It reminded me of the Scripture that Tony Campolo quoted at this year’s Justice Conference. Christ tells a story about how one farmer laid out his seeds to grow for the next year and an evil man came along and scattered weeds among the farmer’s seeds. When his servants realized what had happened, they asked the farmer if they should pull the weeds. He warned them not to saying, if we pull out the weeds then we will pull out the good crop as well. No, let them grow together and we will separate them when it comes time for the harvest. In the same way, we thinned out the garden and separated the good crop from the weeds at the beginning of the week.
But as the week continued, the garden transformed. It became less a bed of weeds and more a place where crops could grow. We were preparing the field, much like God prepares the field for His people to come work in. And much like God’s field, it became apparent that this was work that could not be done by a few. Sara and I talked about the progress that was made because of the six women who served alongside us. Without them, the garden would have looked worse for the wear for much longer than it did. Because the workers were many, we were able to create a place where something good could grow.
That’s the kind of transformation we wish to see in Benton Park West. We want it to become a place where all people are given the chance to grow and to succeed. However, we don’t claim to have all the answers on how to do this. One of the books that our community reads is titled Thin Places by Jon Huckins and Rob Yackley. It talks about six postures of living that allow a community to be built. The first step on this journey towards transformation is listening, and that’s what we strive to do. Most of us in Temple Houses are new to the community (new meaning we’ve moved here in the last few years), we are implants from different places across the country. We don’t have the roots laid down here just quite yet. But we are willing to humble ourselves and understand that no one knows what’s best for this community unless they’re from here. It’s up to us to listen to what they have to say and then be willing to work with them to transform this place we call home.